I’ve always wanted to be a morning person. There is to that idea an aura of virtue. The morning person catches the purer, cooler hours of the morning to be productive. The morning person goes to bed and finds sleep ready to embrace them. But alas, I am not a morning person, despite trying. Upon coming to grips with this, it has become apparent to me that I’ve never been a morning person. I was very much the child who knew every feature of my headboard and texture of my bedroom wall in the long wakeful lonely nights. Even napping is hard for me, except in the rare occasions where a sudden onset knocks me out for a full sleep cycle and no less.
So it is tonight that I yet again, even after a full day of physical labor, cannot make myself sleep. Which perhaps is good, as I don’t have a blog post finished for tomorrow and I’m feeling guilty about that. So with these unwanted extra hours, I shall do something productive and tell you a serious reflection about another wakeful night a couple of weeks ago. It features a very drunk man, a wrong door, and two cops. Though that sounds like the setup to a joke or anecdote, I’m sorry to say that it was a serious incident, and so here is where I’m going to process it.
It was another one of my wakeful nights. My husband sleeps very easily but also very sensitively, and so when I am wakeful I tend to get out of bed and go into the living room where I won’t disturb him. Around 11pm one of my neighbors came home and started having trouble unlocking his door. I live in an apartment complex and we have loud electric keypads for locks. Each failure was broadcasted with a disapproving chirrup, and each series of failures shouted from the keypad. The more he failed, the more he grew frustrated. He started banging on the door, presumably to wake up one of his family members inside. He got no answer. This kept ratcheting up, though he never came to shouting. I kept putting off doing something because I thought “this time he’ll get the code right,” or “this time they’ll wake up and let him in,” but as the hour moved forwards neither of these things happened. So eventually I opened my door to check on the guy, thinking that if it was some technical mishap with the lock I could let him take refuge for the night on our sofa.
What I saw when I opened the door was a highly inebriated stranger who, though never raising his voice, was quite wound up and upset. Upon seeing me, he started to glide towards me with the liquid pace of someone whose legs are keeping up with accidental momentum rather than setting their own pace. He wasn’t wearing a mask, had obviously been to a bar and gotten drunk there, and had no inhibitions about encroaching into the personal space of a strange woman in the night time during a pandemic. I said “no” to his approach and he promptly flipped me off and resumed banging on the door he thought was his, but which I now realized was probably a very upset family’s.
It’s funny that we always assume the police are only accessible in emergencies. Though I’ve needed the police in non-emergencies before, I’ve forgotten with every next move to familiarize myself with the structure of the local police department or to locate their non-emergency number. This drunk was not creating an emergency situation, though he was very much distressing my neighbors and being a nuisance to every neighbor in my stairwell. He clearly needed to be removed from the premises. But though a grotesque wretch, it was clearly a case of him having drunkenly swam up the wrong stairwell and arrived at the wrong door. And I don’t blame my neighbors for not opening the door to him to sort that fact out. It’s a pandemic, and he’s a drunk coming home from an unmasked alcoholic binge at a bar. And he’s a drunk. Who wants to open their door to a drunk?
In the interim of probing out my local police structure to find the appropriate non-emergency number, someone else beat me to it and called the police on this man. I heard the voices in the stairwell, though their tones were lowered and the man kept on beating the door throughout. I popped my head out the door to confirm with them that this man was indeed at the wrong address. There were two police officers on the scene, one of whom halved the distance towards me and to whom I spoke, and another next to the drunk on the top two steps of a stairwell, corking off the passage downstairs with his size. Right as I’d confirmed with the former that the man was not my neighbor, the latter cop very suddenly thrust the drunk back into the wall. The drunk hit it like a ragdoll and slumped slowly to the ground, whereupon both officers pulled his hands behind his back into cuffs and took him away.
The force of that shove startled me. I’ve no sympathy with drunks, no concern that this one was an innocent victim being abused, or that he was incapable of doing harm. But this was also a rather small drunk, neither gifted in bulk or height. The officer who did the shoving? That man was a wall, a tank, a proper rhino of a man. As I’d seen him on the staircase, he was solid and braced upon two rails and two steps. It maybe was a dumb place to stand or it was a smart one, depending on whether he’d chosen that space thoughtlessly or with the deliberate choice to protect the drunk from a tumble down the stairs. The thing about that shove is this: it happened with a lot of force. The officer in question, after a few other words, proceeded to very loudly berate and insult this tiny drunk man for trying to shove him down the stairs.
In many ways that moment is a gap in my memory. It was so sudden, so violent, that it shocked me and kicked off my reflexes. For those first moments I was purely seeing but not strictly processing. The thing is, that before those loud conspicuous protests by the huge officer that this little man had tried pushing him down the stairs –an act which I did not see and had not seen signs of– I don’t remember the words being about shoves or self defense. It was the appearance of those words that kicked my cognition back into function for their discord with what I’d seen. Before the idea of a shove by the drunk was introduced into the scene… I could have sworn the words were about disrespect.
Perhaps you already can see the flaw in my witness. What did I witness? Indeed, trying to parse that shocked fight-or-flight moment of my reflexes doesn’t give me very clear memories. Moreover, this giant of a cop had his back to me, and I couldn’t really even see in what manner he had propelled the drunk into the back wall. And right before then, I’d spoken to the first cop and my eyes weren’t directly on the drunk. Though I think I’d looked over at the cop and drunk right before the shove happened, can I really be sure about that? And who am I defending anyways? An uncouth man under the influence, who was too impaired to problem solve his way through an unyielding door. It’s not out of the question that this drunk might have approached the giant cop, whether aggressively or in an attempt to push through to escape, because his judgement wasn’t there.
But that splat into the door. I both saw and heard that. I do distinctly remember the recoil of his head bouncing off, his dragging collapse onto the ground, and his whimpering responses to the cop’s beratements. He honestly could have been injured. After a few seconds of watching them pull the man’s arms around and cuff him, I retreated inside my apartment, uncomfortable and unsure of what to do. The cops went from being a relief from an uncomfortable situation to the uncomfortable situation. I didn’t know how to confront them, how could I? They were police, they were claiming self-defense, this man was a disorderly drunk, and I had no reinforcement or strength as a witness.
I wasn’t sure what to do right away. I videoed myself giving a testimony of the event so that I’d at least always have my fresh impressions with a time stamp. Thankfully, in the world of night owls, I have a close friend in another precinct who works night duties at a sheriff’s office. She directed me towards the complaints form on my local forces’ website. She didn’t have much hope of the situation being addressed. Neither did I. I didn’t have a complaint about the officer per se and didn’t have any call to action, but only needed a place to report that something inappropriate had happened. If that drunk had been injured, and if he filed his own complaint against the police as a result, I at least wanted my witness to be on file. I couldn’t testify as to his own innocence, nor to the manner of the shoving done by the officer, but I could testify to the strength and sound of that thump and the conspicuously late and loud appearance of the idea of self-defense in the officer’s mouth. Even if I could no longer be sure that the officer’s original reprimand was oriented around disrespect. So I wrote as thorough a summary as I could type in the little window of the Adobe fillable form, printed it, and sealed it for posting the next day.
Then I went to sleep. Hahahaha, no. I was awake for a long time after that, numbing my mind with endless Pinterest pictures. Where was my husband? You maybe ask. Well, given that I struggle with sleep so much, I tend to find my husband’s gift for it something hallowed and untouchable. In truth, through all this it never occurred to me to go and wake him up. I should have, but that only dawned upon me at dawn, when I was telling him the story from the depths of my blankets to his bright, rested, morning-person countenance.
And so I mailed off my complaint, fairly sure it would come to nothing and even suspicious that I’d never hear of it again.
The Follow Up
Today I received a call. It was from an officer in the police department, following up on my complaint. He needed to talk with me, roughly two weeks after the incident, to check my story. I gave him my best recollection. There were, by this time, fewer details in my head to draw upon, and I was largely dependent upon the words I remembered writing as those were the only memories I’d been able to retain with clarity. I was conscientious not to try and fill in the gaps with guesses or overly strong assertions. The officer took my statement in very polite and formal terms.
It was at first, a positive interaction. The form I had sent in, after all, was rather short on writing space, and so it was good to have a verbal follow-up even if it was a little distant from the event (the officer explained he’s been on medical leave and unable to address complaints in the interim) and even if I had even less to say than I’d written. The tone never stopped being formal, the officer never changed his tone to anything other than friendly, but its nature changed as soon as he had my statement. He went from taking information to giving it, in certain terms and with a great wealth of detail and length. I honestly felt like I was on the pew at Sunday school, with a teacher programming me with a body of information and interpretation and that it was only my job to accept his words by sheer force of their quantity and assertion. He told me the cops all wore body cams, that those cams were turned on for every civilian interaction, and that he’d reviewed the footage. He told me that the drunk had advanced violently, that the officer had responded with a specific kind of rebuff, and that such rebuff was “appropriate” in manner and magnitude. He conceded that some of the officer’s words were not appropriate, and that his position at the top of the stairs was not a strong choice for personal safety (though it was a good choice to keep the drunk from escaping and becoming a hazard for the community), but anyhow the officer would be addressed on those choices. But he also made very clear through a number of careful, inoffensive, but certain terms that I was not a strong witness and that I had no authority to interpret the situation. After all, Officer In-Question, whose back was to me, is rather a human brick wall, and you can’t see through a brick wall can you?
I was not being interviewed, I was being told where to get off.
The investigation into my complaint has not yet been closed. I still have a future phone call from another officer that will tell me me the official results. Oh boy, I wonder what they’ll be. But in the meantime, I am merely in the status of witness, of a point and source of data to be inventoried among other points of data. (And by the way, the testimony or reaction of the drunk was never mentioned and I’m guessing hasn’t been solicited.) This officer on the phone was tampering with my witness. His words were dripping with the intent to shape the content of my memory, to plant in me self-doubt as to my own testimony, to put me in my place as an ineffective part of the process. My motivations for filing the complaint or my attempt at citizenship were unqueried and unacknowledged.
I get that these days in America the police struggle with Public Relations. By generous doubt, maybe the officer on the phone wanted to put me at ease with the competence and judgement of my local police, but that was not his job. The closing officer with whom I’ll later be speaking is the one who should be telling me the summary and conclusions. The job of this officer was to demonstrate competence and judgement by doing and doing well the task of collecting my data for his investigation. Instead, the whole experience undermined my confidence. Negating my role and testimony, feeding me information (by verbal affidavit, and not actual access or external confirmation, to be clear), and feeding me interpretations –these are all the things you do to prevent a witness from being a credible source on a podium. For now my thoughts are tampered with. His explanations have now been incorporated into my testimony, whether in acceptance or rebuttal, and I am now suspect of relying on information that was not original to my witness. I am only thankful that I took that recording in the direct aftermath so that I’ll always know what I thought at first, and always have that to supply.
Though I’ll never have to supply it. We all know this. I suspected at the time and still suspect that the drunk might not even remember the event in question. That’s a perk of being drunk. Or bumped in the head. Or maybe he does remember it, maybe he did get a little hurt, but maybe kicking a fuss isn’t worth the hassle. Who cares if a drunk gets pushed about? Who knows what that body cam footage actually shows of the incident, and who can access it except the very people that would face retribution if it wasn’t in their favor. And perhaps there’s nothing false in the testimony that the drunk tried to push the officer. He was quite drunk, and who knows what to his addled mind seemed like a good idea. Of all hills to die on, this one isn’t exactly the crusade of the year. Whatever the situation, there still is the lingering sight of a huge man throwing a little man like a rag doll into the opposite wall.
Who is the Enemy?
I want to be supportive of the police force. This isn’t my only look inside how police forces operate or the realities that officers face. That close friend on night shift was actually a roommate of mine throughout undergrad. In her Criminal Justice program, much like in my education program, she was loaded a little more with analysis of problems in the systems rather than actionable solutions. I’ve also spoken at great length with a police chaplain who was very frank about the frailty of the officers he serves. Our system is abusive and hazing to police officers. Our cultural reward is largely to applaud and support their machismo, their hardness and strength in the face of danger, their self-sacrifice in fighting criminals to keep us all safe, but never to address their brokenness in the daily abuses of seeing people at their worst, of being derided by the entitled white guy who doesn’t think speed limits apply to his sports car, or of the hazing within their own peers and organizations to hide all failures of justice and flaws that undermine their authority.
I recognize in policing some of the same dilemmas as in education. Both institutions can only work if the population they serve cedes to them authority. They build about themselves a myth of being impartial experts who are run by laws and regulation, while hiding that inside they’re actually run by strings of discretionary choices often made in situational haste and riddled with missteps. After all, no rules cover every situation and no plans every contingency, and it is the fallible discretion of individuals that must fill those gaps. Like the police force, the education system used to recourse to violence upon the students to patch over any threats to their authority. We’ve now tied the educational system’s hands on recoursing to violence, forcing them to work upstream on the problem and preempt the conflict by solidifying their own skills and competence. No, there’s not a solution to every problem yet, but we’ve forced a great deal of problem solving to happen and have made a better education system for it. Meanwhile, we’ve given the police force wider and freer berth to administer violence at their own discretion. It hasn’t forced the police to address why they are losing the goodwill required to make their work effective, but only enabled them to double down on the flaws that are undermining the faith of the community. Even that police chaplain who I knew had to dance a line of holding the trust of the force he served while he was still technically a civilian whose job was to be sympathetic to civilians. Instead of repairing relations with the public and striving for the Andy Griffith ideal of public servants who know and love the community they’re serving, the police have more and more categorized and trained their own minds to see the public as an enemy. You hide from the public your messes. You show the enemy no weakness.
Returning to my drunk guy. As a drunk, it’s not surprising that he had no respect for the police. He had no respect for me either. My friend who works in the sheriff’s office has told me she’d rather process a dope case than a drunk case any day, because the latter are vile in body functions and emotional states. I wouldn’t be surprised if this drunk had tried shoving that officer, even though when comparing the scale of the two men and the braced position of the officer the idea of such being a real threat was laughable. The officer then, according to his own discretion, shoved back. In the moment, perhaps biased by a disdain for drunks or ear-gauges (or a training that taught him all public individuals are his enemy), he thrust too hard and the drunk rag-dolled into the door. Though an unfortunate use of discretion when better options could’ve been taken, I might’ve still extended goodwill to that officer and trusted that it was an accident in the spur of the moment. It’s still a problem, but in extending grace you could interpret that this was not necessarily a sign of something more chronic. The experience could’ve become a mistake to be learned from and prepared against. There was no question that the man needed to be removed from the premises for the sake of the family whose door he was beating, but there are better options for controlling and restraining a man without blunt force trauma.
However, the first missing ingredient was the lack of concern shown for the wellfare of the collapsed drunk, who had hit his head and was audibly confused and whimpering. There was no inspection of his head or question as to his hurt as far as I saw. Instead, the officer conspicuously started shouting a narrative of things that accounted for his own discretionary choice of action. Such shouting was conspicuous because it surely wasn’t for the drunk’s benefit, and its appearance in the dialogue was delayed. And then the later officer on the phone from the same police force (not an external organization) who was processing the case –not deciding the case, but merely collating the information– did everything in his polite and formal dialogue to hold his version of events unquestionable and to negate my validity as a source. I came away from the experience feeling that I had been categorized as the enemy who created paperwork over the wellfare and handling of a mere drunk, who surely only filed this complaint for nothing short of discrediting and destroying the career of an honest competent officer. The inappropriate discretionary use of violence by the officer? Hide it with words. Hide it with closed ranks. Hide the query by neutralizing the only witness who dared to file. Hide the evidence where no non-loyal team members can see it. Stand by the narrative that any level of reactionary force is “appropriate.”
And another chip in the trust required for policing to work has been wrought.